“I gave God a chance to kill me”
Hailed by the TIFF moderator as Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, I found myself expecting something very specific from Das weiße Band [The White Ribbon]. Thinking about the uncomfortable feeling he leaves the audience with during both Funny Games and Caché, I readied myself for a dark and disturbing look into an Austrian town before the First World War. The film is just under two and half hours long, somber in its execution and quietly powerful in its subject matter. At every second I kept waiting for the big reveal, the climactic moment to turn things around and be a game-changer—that’s Haneke’s M.O. right? But that doesn’t happen here, the story’s tone stays consistent with a subtle oppressive feeling lingering just below the surface. You feel that something is just not right, but can’t quite put a finger on it.
Admittedly, I was underwhelmed at its conclusion. I knew it was something great, especially in construction and visual prowess, yet I couldn’t shake that feeling of clouded mediocrity. And then, after talking about it with my friend for an hour or two afterwards, it hit me. Haneke has intentionally filled our minds with detail upon detail, setting up conspiracies and unsolved mysterious, leading us to believe things only to plant clues that refute them. Looking back, I found that each second stuck in my head; I couldn’t shake even the minutest detail because it might hold the key to solving this puzzle. Deaths, tragedies, and accidents are happening every day, possibly connected, but how? Our narrator, the town’s schoolteacher played by Christian Friedel, is relaying the events that occurred before being sent off to fight once the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. He believes the strange attitude and mysterious activities all began with a freak accident of the doctor. Riding his horse back home, he is thrown off when its legs trip on a wire spanning two trees, causing a lengthy hospital stay to recover. Next come a death, a kidnapping, and a beating, all unsolved despite hunches and hypotheses going through the town. Something is in the air, but what it is and what will come of it is unknown.
The children are the key to everything. They are the easiest to blame, as it seems they are always there by the tragedies. Definitely hiding something, the kids begin to stare authority in the eye and practice what has been preached. Haneke mentions in an interview attached to the press notes that he wanted to show the sort of “black” education going on at the time, breeding Fascism and terror. Good and evil fall to strict black and white, every action has a reaction, a punishment to set things right. The children are of an age that they are beginning to understand that life is not eternal, there are consequences in their actions and the adults are not afraid to tell them so. When you don’t follow the rules, you will be caned, (a brilliant scene showing the young siblings enter the room, but allowing the audience to only see the closed door during the abuse), and you will have to wear the white ribbon in order to show the world your transgressions and need to earn back the right to be free, (the precursor to the Jewish stars perhaps?).
What about the adults? What about those practicing adultery, or abuse of power, or destruction of property, or sexual abuse with a child? Who has the right to punish them? When, after the second kidnapping and beating of a young boy, a note is found stating intentions, that the children of transgressors will be discipline for four to five generations, you start to see the severity of the actions—as well as allusions to the Holocaust and the mass genocide of an entire people, rooting out the “evils” of the world by excising the entire population, killing the bloodline at the source. But it can’t be the children, right? They are too young and innocent, unknowing of the world set before them. Yet with the upbringing in this town, treated as adults with responsibilities and accountability, anyone would grow up fast. Cause a raucous in class and be chastised; be the leader and stand in the corner. Forgiveness is a liability. When the oldest girl, and leader of the wolves if you believe the children are the monsters, Klara, (wonderfully portrayed by Maria-Victoria Dargus), is ready to accept Communion, her own father, the pastor, (a menacing man of authority realized by Burghart Klaußner), pauses, contemplating whether she deserves it. You know he doesn’t want to give in, family bond means nothing.
Haneke has woven a tapestry of intrigue that will keep you on edge throughout. The anticipation of a solution is palpable, and the fact it is never released makes this film so riveting and unforgettable. The payoff is that these children will grow up into the generation that becomes the Nazi party, making this sleepy rural town a breeding ground for young Fascists that will change the world. Retribution is being taught, atoning for ones sins practiced. World War II is after all an answer to the punishment inflicted on Germany after the first, isn’t it? It’s a cycle of getting back, proving one’s pride, and seeking revenge upon the children of the enemy if the enemy itself is unavailable. God’s will has to be upheld and that intrinsic fact is ingrained in the minds of the youth. When Martin, an effective Leonard Proxauf, is discovered walking along the railing of a high bridge, he responds to the yelling of the man that finds him with the line used to title this review. If what he was doing was wrong—we can only infer on his role in the incidents occurring around him—then God would have let him fall, paying for his sins. But the fact that he gets to the other side unscathed only proves his work is that of the creator of man. Haneke says he had another name for the film, God’s Right Hand, and I think it would have been just as appropriate a title. A powerful film, sharing so much information without any answers; it takes our mind into overdrive, trying so hard to find a reason for it all. But sometimes there are none; sometimes bad things just happen. You can only speculate and hope to prevent them from ever happening again.
Das weiße Band [The White Ribbon] 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival